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The DNA Sleuth

by Matt Villano


The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, a non-government not-for-profit organization, sponsored the 1999 survey, and the United Kingdom-based group has remained one of Cipriano's biggest backers. On one WDCS-funded trip in 2003, Cipriano ran similar DNA identification tests and discovered whale meat in other products such as bone meal fertilizer and pet food.

"We have locals purchase the products for us anonymously, and keep things under wraps."
--Frank Cipriano

 

The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency also has sponsored surveys, including a trip in late February, just before the devastating earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan.

Predictably, the conservation community has raved about these highly politicized efforts. Surprisingly, however, after initial criticism several of the offending governments have embraced the research too.

In Japan and other whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland, DNA identification testing is now part of the official protocol for controlling market products.

"My sense is that they don't like it but have come to recognize the value," Cipriano says. "The facts are the facts; in many cases having control of this process and the information it produces is needed by these governments to show their intention to better control whale meat markets."

DNA testing using a portable laboratory is also in demand for other purposes. This spring, for instance, another WDCS-funded project took Cipriano to Argentina, where he has been working with conservation group Fundación Cethus to analyze genetic variations among different populations of Commerson's Dolphin found off the Patagonia coast near the Strait of Magellan.

While the work is ongoing, Cipriano says data recently published in the journal Marine Mammal Science indicates that animals separated by no more than 150 to 300 kilometers are, in fact, part of genetically distinct subgroups and thereby should be treated as a separate management units which may have unique adaptations to local environments, an important consideration for the continued survival of natural populations.

Whale researchers and other biologists find this application of Cipriano's model most compelling.

"Frank's work is groundbreaking and an important tool for conservation biology," says Jonathan Stern, a lecturer and colleague in the biology department. "The identification of species and populations using genetic techniques has revolutionized the way we approach identification and management of populations."

It likely will continue to do so.

 

Inside Hensill Hall on the main SF State campus, Cipriano recently renamed his Conservation Genetics Laboratory the Genomics/ Transcriptonomics Analysis Core.

Just like the care he takes in his investigations, Cipriano put a lot of thought into the name choice. The lab's acronym, GTAC, is a play on the four bases which make up the structure of DNA.

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